Masao Yoshida, chief of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 power plant, had lost hope and was exhausted on the night of March 14, 2011, three days into the nuclear meltdown crisis.
When he saw workers from companies cooperating with Tokyo Electric Power Co. at the plant’s emergency headquarters, Yoshida just muttered: “Everyone, please just go home. Just go back home.”
Yoshida was urging all nonessential workers to leave in case another catastrophe hit the plant, and possibly all of eastern Japan. At the time, both the pressure and temperature were surging inside of quake-hit reactor No. 2, evoking fears of the worst-case scenario.
“All of the nuclear materials could escape and spread. Our image was that of a catastrophe for eastern Japan,” he is quoted as saying in the government’s formerly top-secret transcripts of its interviews with him, finally released Thursday after leaks.
Any explosion in reactor No. 2 resulting in the release of massive amounts of deadly nuclear material would immediately halt the injection of coolant water into reactors 1 and 3, putting them in the same situation as reactor 2.
“This is the part I really don’t want to recall,” Yoshida said during the interview session, which took place in August 2011.
Prompted by months of media reports based on apparent leaks of the text, as well as formal disclosure requests from the media, including The Japan Times, the government on Thursday released more than 400 pages of the Yoshida transcripts, which cover his testimony from July to November 2011 to its investigative panel on the disaster.
The government initially refused to disclose the transcripts because Yoshida had asked, in a May 2012 written request, that they not be publicized. But after the leaks, the government relented and posted them on its website Thursday.
In the interviews, Yoshida explained in detail how the crisis developed and how he and his team responded. He also stressed that, during the crisis, he and his colleagues never thought of withdrawing everyone from the crippled plant.
Given the lack of information from the plant, the government’s leaders, including Prime Minister Naoto Kan, suspected that Tepco’s top executives in Tokyo were at one point considering pulling everyone out and abandoning the six-reactor station.
“(Tepco’s) head office and the prime minister’s office may have been having absurd discussions (about a withdrawal), but did (the workers) run away? They didn’t,” Yoshida is quoted as saying.
He said that even when he was pondering the worst-case scenario, he thought he would have to keep a skeleton crew on hand, including himself. Nonessential workers, however, would have been urged to leave, he added.
The release of the transcripts has drawn a great deal of public attention because Yoshida, who died of esophageal cancer last year, is viewed as a national hero for containing the crisis and people wanted to know more about the already published accounts of his actions.
But another reason is because some of those accounts seemed to contradict each other.
The Asahi Shimbun, which claimed in May to have the full text of the interviews, published several reports about them. One said that Yoshida on March 15, 2011, ordered workers to find somewhere on the No. 1 plant grounds to avoid radiation, but most didn’t follow that directive and instead fled to the nearby Fukushima No. 2 plant, 10 km to the south.
That report caught the attention of overseas media because it contradicted the story that was perpetuated about the brave “Fukushima 50” who stayed to handle the emergency. Later, the Asahi’s rival, the Sankei Shimbun, claimed that the Asahi’s report was erroneous.
The full text released Thursday, which has the names of some people redacted for privacy, shows that both reports could be described as at least partially correct: Yoshida said he did not order workers to evacuate to the No. 2 plant, but nonetheless workers went there. But he also said he later concluded the workers’ decision to go to No. 2 was far more appropriate than following his order.
“Actually, I never told them to go to 2F,” Yoshida is quoted as saying, referring to the still-functioning Fukushima No. 2. “(Later) I came to believe that going to 2F was by far the right thing to do if only you gave more thought to it.”
In the interviews, Yoshida often used blunt language to criticize top Tepco executives and government leaders for intervening in technical decisions that should have been left to the plant chief.
He also alleged that the desperate effort by Self-Defense Forces personnel, firefighters and police officers to get water into the dangerously hot spent-fuel pools “were all meaningless” given the small amount of water they were working with.
An SDF helicopter, dipping a huge bucket in the ocean, flew over the fuel pools and tried to dump the water into them. Water cannon trucks operated by the SDF, firefighters and police also shot water at the pools, and they were all praised as brave heroes.
But Yoshida said much of that water didn’t even reach the targets. “Even if all of the (water) had gone into the pools, the amount would have been something like 10 or 20 tons. That would be meaningless,” he said. He didn’t elaborate, but the spent fuel pool for reactor 4, for example, had the capacity to hold 1,425 tons of water.
Yoshida also sought to defend himself for not preparing for a monster tsunami, despite a 2008 simulation by experts that showed 15.7-meter waves could hit Fukushima No. 1 if a powerful earthquake were to hit off the coast. Yoshida was at that time the head of Tepco’s nuclear equipment management department, which is responsible for preparing for potential natural disasters such as quakes and tsunami. In the aftermath of 3/11, media outlets harshly criticized Tepco for ignoring the simulation.
But according to Yoshida, the simulation was fully hypothetical and based on an arbitrary assumption that a mega-quake would take place in the sea off Fukushima, with no scientific studies showing such a possibility.
No one in academia had said such a scenario was likely before the March 11 quake, and no one in the government was seriously considering such a possibility, Yoshida said. With no consensus among quake and tsunami experts, Tepco could not have assumed that such a big tsunami would hit the Tohoku region, Yoshida argued.
“I want to raise a loud voice to say this. This time, (the tsunami-quake disasters) killed 23,000 people. This is not just about issues regarding the safety of a nuclear power plant,” Yoshida said. “If you (criticize) us, why didn’t you take measures to prevent those people from dying? . . . People just discuss the design of a nuclear power plant.”